Is J. Peterman a brand, a Seinfeld character, or glimpse into retail’s aspirational past? The answer to this question depends on who you ask. In truth, J. Peterman is all of these things. J. Peterman is the brand that laid the foundation for retail catalogs as we know them today.
In 1995-1998, actor John O’ Hurley played J. Peterman on Seinfeld. On the other hand, J. Peterman the brand was founded in 1987, coming in hot with a preppy safari vibe that set the company apart from other retailers on the scene.
Let’s take a look at how J. Peterman paved the way for marketing as we know it today. We’ll also discuss what’s next for this trailblazing legacy retailer.
Shopping With a Purpose
Out of the gate, J. Peterman has a clear positioning. As they say it, “Since we started, our philosophy has been to help people live their lives the way they wish they were by offering distinctive, hard-to-find lifestyle merchandise for men and women inspired by our travels. The J. Peterman Company represents an aspirational lifestyle. Our selections enable our customers to feel transported to a world full of travel, adventure, and romance; a world where the uncommon journey creates the memories we cherish most. The company’s history is rooted in this aspiration, and we try to live up to it every single day.”
As a next-gen grappling with a world we are inheriting complicated by climate change, racism, war, the politicization of everything, bad actors and misinformation, this is a big ask from the J. Peterman team.
Peterman Set the Stage for Modern Catalog Shopping
In today’s world, brands need to share every microcosmic detail about their products to make a sale. That’s what makes J. Peterman’s sketched out storybook catalogs (described as an Owner’s Manual) such an anomaly. They evoke F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic world, complete with title for each product Rather than obsessively imparting every visual detail of the products, J. Peterman’s online and physical catalog have romantic illustrations of each product, laden with descriptive, often nostalgic storytelling. In fact, J. Peterman shares a creative fantasy narrative about each piece of apparel on their online catalog – even the product details. Like this snippet from the company’s online catalog for a $128 pair of cigarette pants:
Why do we spend whole days watching old films when we can watch them in full, wondrous color? I think it has something to do with the mood created by infinite gradations of gray, silver, and beige. Light and shadow. How black isn’t just black, white not just white. The mind fills in the absence of color. It worked out (unforgettably) well for Garbo and Gable, Bacall and Dietrich.”
Or a $598 evening dress:
Cheers to Fate.
You won’t need to climb the railing on the aft deck of an ocean liner in this (in fact, I discourage it outright) or require rescue by a young, handsome artist who has a way with the words. No, consider instead the life this dress is truly meant to inhabit. Waltzes. Witty repartee. Winsome, knowing looks over the rim of a crystal coupe. Everything grand, elegant. Romantic, mysterious. Whether you pose for the artist later, well, that’s entirely up to you.
You’d be hard pressed to find another brand taking this level of creativity mainstream. Modern fragrance brands such as Blackbird share little vignettes that describe the inspiration for each fragrance. But the only brand that published similar fantasy narratives is Patagonia in its early days.
O’ Hurley’s Seinfeld Character Paved the Way for Influencer Marketing
It’s a fascinating study to look back at marketing campaigns from the early 90s. In them, you can see the roots of influencer marketing as we know it today. The global influencer marketing industry is predicted to hit $16.4 billion dollars in revenue in 2022. But when actor John O’ Hurley played J. Peterman in Seinfeld in the late 90s, influencer marketing was in its inception phase. J. Peterman’s website states “our merchants really do travel the world.”
Speaking of globetrotting, ‘O Hurley’s Seinfeld character’s personality and wacky activities reflected the brand ethos of J. Peterman. Seinfeld’s J. Peterman was constantly going on safaris and having wild adventures, which aligns with the safari bent of the clothing. ‘O Hurley was a brand representative for J. Peterman before social media even existed, solidifying J. Peterman the brand’s status as a trailblazing company.
Adventure core clothing built for functionality certainly resonates with next-gen’s purchasing mentality. As does 90s nostalgia, which is why it seems like just a matter of time before younger generations may catch on to J. Peterman. With that said, next gens are more product-oriented than brand oriented. J. Peterman weaves a lovely fantasy narrative, but next-gens may need to see the actual products in action to become avid fans like their predecessors.
Starting Over at Age 30
- Peterman’s 90s heyday was short lived. In the early aughts, J. Peterman fell prey to an issue that impacts most legacy retailers at some point: Their core customer base was getting older, aging out of the brand. The company went bankrupt. When the brand was founded again in 2001, it was with a more open mind and a willingness to test and learn.
For example, the new J. Peterman dipped its toes into the crowdfunding pool. The brand turned to Kickstarter to raise funds to help bring 3 new products to life. The company brought back John O’ Hurley to play J. Peterman in an ad slot. In the ad, the real J. Peterman’s children debunked the fictitious character’s travelogue. The Kickstarter campaign was set with a lofty goal of $500,000, of which just $100,933 was raised.
The Aspirational Marketing Well Ran Dry
At this point, J. Peterman’s core 40 to 45-year-old customer demographic is now in their 80s. The brand needs to find a way to reach next-gens, but its value proposition is counterintuitive to next-gen’s purchasing mentality. J. Peterman’s fantasy travel vignettes align with aspirational marketing. Next-gen shoppers, on the other hand, want to see high resolution images of every single product detail. Aspirational marketing has fallen by the wayside in favor of realistic, accessible brand campaigns.
The question J. Peterman needs to answer is this: How can a brand that cut its teeth on aspirational marketing –– specifically, customers wanting to look well-traveled –– succeed in today’s transparency-driven retail industry? This will mean finding ways to share product details that bolster each item’s value proposition. J. Peterman’s Instagram account is chocked full of sketches directly from its online catalog. But where are the reels? Where are the travel influencers blogging about wearing the $100+ apparel? How has the mystique from the catalog carried through on social media?
The answer is, thus far, that it hasn’t. It’s time for J. Peterman to rustle up some of its 90s era innovation in the form of creative guerilla marketing to reach next-gens. If the company doesn’t want to stop sharing sketches of apparel, J. Peterman could definitely benefit from an AI influencer, à la Marks and Spencer. And it’s high time the company aligns with a social cause that becomes part of its value proposition –– possibly a cause related to travel. The future of J. Peterman depends on it.